Devil’s Club

Athabasca Pass

Wood River to Athabasca Pass, from CM/F9, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, B.C. Archives. Detail from original map.

You may wonder why I am beginning a post with this subject “devil’s club.” Wonder no longer. Devil’s club (or devils club) is a poisonous plant that grows everywhere in the province of B.C., including the area in the Rocky Mountains between the Wood River and Athabasca Pass. The York Factory Express men going out in the spring had little trouble with the plant, or at least they never mentioned any trouble. But they climbed the trail in April and May, often when there was still snow on the ground. It is likely that devil’s club does not grow at that time of year.

My great-uncle James Robert Anderson (son of Alexander Caulfield Anderson) had a run in with devil’s club and did not enjoy it! This is what he wrote in his book, Trees and Shrubs, Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia.

This shrub is well named, being covered with thorns from the root up, including the backs of the leaves and flower-stems. The thorns are poisonous, as I can certify from personal experience. Nevertheless, it is a handsome shrub with its great leaves 9 to 12 inches across, resembling those of the Thornless Raspberry. It bears spikes of greenish-white flowers at the ends of the stems, developing later on into a superb spike of bright-red berries, looking as if made of sealing-wax. It is a plant well worth the trouble of cultivating in large grounds. Its height is from 4 to 10 feet, often bent to the ground by snow or by its own weight, the ends springing up again in an upright position. In forcing a way through a thicket, therefore, it behoves one to be wary, or a false step may result in a wound in the face or hands as the result of an upright stem flying back. Its range is all over the Province, and its habitat shady, cool stream-beds and wet ground.

In doing my research on devil’s club, I found that Sierra Club had written about it, saying that “brave bears” enjoyed those berries! Another hazard.

So, as no York Factory Express man mentioned a poisonous plant in his journal, I ignored the fact that devil’s club existed in this part of the world. In fact most of the men described themselves as going over the pass in snow, which would certainly have kept the devil’s club down. But even in the returning journals they not mention it. But it would be October when they came back, and somewhat chilly. Quite possibly the devil’s club had died down. However, in mid-summer, it is definitely there.

Most persons today who hike the Athabasca Pass trail to the Wood River do it from east to west. Its much easier, as the hiker is going down the hill, rather than clambering up! This story, published in Beaver Magazine, Spring 1961, tells the story of a climb through Athabasca Pass a number of years ago, before Kinbasket Lake was created. Here is what the author, R.M. Patterson, said, in “We Clomb the Pathless Pass.”

The hardest traverse was from west to east, since that was made almost always on foot and included the ascent of the Grande Cote — the Big Hill, where the trail climbed steeply for 3,000 feet from the battures of Wood River into the alpine country. And the worst season was the spring, the months of April and May when the snow still lay deep and soggy in the bush on Wood River, and the high meadows by the Punch Bowl were still under eight or ten feet of wind-packed snow. On this the travellers had to make their camps, and into it their fires sank while they slept, forming fire-pits with vertical walls of yellow, smoke-stained ice.

Leaving Fort Vancouver about the first of April, the fur-traders would ascend the Columbia River by canoe to the very tip of the Big Bend and there, on Portage Point, which is between the mouths of Wood and Canoe Rivers and some two miles from the modern highway, they would lay up their canoes, cache all they did not need or could not carry, and arrange their loads — 90 pounds for the Company plus a man’s blanket and gun and whatever else he carried for himself. When all was done and an inventory made of the cached stuff they started up Wood River, which then was Portage River [in Alexander Ross’s time].

They started with three miles of swampy ground, and then they hit the First Point of Woods — a place where there is no passage on the opposite bank and where the timber on the trail side comes right to the water’s edge. Through this bush they had to struggled with their loads — those who had them using their pas d’ours, their bear-paw snowshoes. Edward Ermatinger writes that “the road being hard to find wastes time,” and suggests that the horse party in the fall blaze the trees plainly from their saddles high up above snow level… then they came to a six-mile stretch of open gravel flats, or battures, through which the Portage [Wood] River flows swiftly in many channels, winding from wall to wall of the valley. Here they had to ford continuously, and they travelled in the icy water almost as much as they did on the bars. Alexander Ross marked these traverses of Portage River on his staff: by nightfall on the first day he had notched up sixty-two crossings — and there were a few earlier ones not recorded!

It is interesting that this author could find no descriptions written by any of these men as they climbed the trail up the ridge that divided the Wood River and Jeffrey Creek from Pacific Creek to the north. Probably there are none: even modern day explorers seem to omit writing about this section of the trail. And as I have said, most people who write books or articles about the hike between the Wood River and Athabasca Pass hike the trail from east to west. But what would happen if you hiked it the other way, as all the York Factory Express men did every year? Well..

Today much of the Wood River is covered by the water of the Wood Arm of Kinbasket Lake, which buried Boat Encampment and many of the battures and points of wood in the trail. Patterson, above, wrote about the trail before the Columbia River was dammed. Modern-day hikers would make their way east to the end of the Wood Arm, or they might hike a trail that runs along its southern edge, according to my relatively ancient [1998] Recreation Map for the Columbia River District, put out by the Ministry of Forests. Until now I had only used this map to confirm the location of the rivers and rapids of the Columbia River, without looking at the country east of Kinbasket Lake. But when I did, I found lots of valuable information.

Anyone hiking the trail will find a good distance of the Wood River is still hikeable — and there are still plenty of swamps and battures remaining on the piece of the river that is left. Hikers will cross the Wood River numerous times, wading through the icy cold water on battures or gravel bars, with linked arms to prevent themselves from being swept off their feet. The water of the river might be waist deep in the freshets of spring. I think there is a little more than 15 kms of the trail remaining from the end of the Wood Arm to the Wood River’s junction with Jeffrey Creek. For the most part hikers will be traveling the south side of the Wood River, according to this map. Now, as there seem to be swamps on this river, maybe you want to keep an eye open for devil’s club here, I think.

The York Factory express men went up Jeffrey Creek on its right [east] bank. As there is devil’s club here, too, be careful. Somewhere along this piece of trail the Big Hill begins. That Big Hill takes hikers from the banks of the creek to the top of the ridge that separates Jeffrey Creek from Pacific Creek (which also flows into the Wood River, but further east). My Recreation Map has the information that the Athabasca Pass Trail has 14 km in B.C., and is a Total of 71 km, which would take a hiker all the way to Jasper. Its information continues: “A historic trail through Athabasca Pass into Jasper National Park and down the Whirlpool River..’ post contact fur trade route; difficult access to B.C. trailhead; marshy sections in Pacific Creek; wilderness pass required for hiking in Jasper National Park.”

Apparently, at the junction of the Wood River with Jeffrey Creek, there is a sign that says “Athabasca Pass, 14 km.” It is still there.

The trail along Jeffrey Creek ascends the hill of some sort, until it runs on the top of a high ridge above that fast-flowing creek. At first it is a good trail that allows for easy hiking through a cedar forest. The trail near the top of the saddle is very steep and difficult, with no visible trail and a lot of waist high plants making footing uncertain. Then we are told:

There is no trail as such, merely a route. In many places there is no visible trail. There are markers, but they are on the north side of the trees, making it difficult to find the trail. Good route finding skills are needed.

I am told that those markers existed in 2002, at least. But remember, you are approaching all these marked trees from the south, and these markers are on the north side of the trees and hidden from you!

The trail is described as being for hardy folk only. Once the hiker has crossed the saddle, they find the trail continues along the high ridge above Pacific Creek, which is in a deep ravine with rapids and waterfalls. That’s why no one comes down Pacific Creek to the Wood River — it is an impassible route. At the top of the saddle hikers are 5,000 feet above sea level. Pacific Creek lies 750 feet below, and to the north Athabasca Pass looms some 5,700 feet above sea level.

At some point, hikers descend the ridge or saddle into the Pacific Creek valley, and it does not sound as if this is a steep descent. Because snow lies in the valley till late in the spring, it is always swampy and boggy. Even on the York Factory Express men’s return home it had the same characteristics — Thomas Lowe called it the Swamp.

In 2011, when a party hiking the trail from east to west came through the pass, they found a massive avalanche near the top of the pass: a snow-slide had filled the trail with masses of trees and debris three meters wide. They clambered over this barrier, however. I am not sure where it was, but I presume it was on the British Columbia side of the pass.

There are more hazards even when you reach Athabasca Pass. At the height of land lie three lakes (sometimes high water makes them into one big lake). The lake in the centre is the one called Committee’s Punch Bowl. The hazard at these lakes is this: the stones lining the lake are covered with moss and can be very slippery.

Another interesting thing about these lakes: the trees that surrounded the Committee’s Punch Bowl Lake were, at one point in time, festooned with the carved names of the gentlemen who travelled through this pass into the Columbia district for the first time. This was a tradition of the fur trade, and the hiker who wrote about this said there were many very interesting and historic names cut into these trees. I wonder how many remain? I would love to know!

So if you want to read about the York Factory Express men who would have encountered Devil’s Club, order the book here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Devil’s Club

  1. Tom Holloway

    Alexander Ross’s description of the Grande Côte may be somewhere in your postings, but here it is again, from his “Fur Hunters of the Far West,” Vol. 2, pp. 194-195:

    “At nine o’clock in the morning we commenced the ascent of the Grande Côte, and continued to ascend in a thousand sinuous windings until five o’clock in the afternoon; we then found ourselves on top of it, a distance of about three miles in length, but scarcely a mile and a quarter in a straight line. At first the ascent was gradual, but it increased in difficulty as we advanced; and this was the more keenly felt as we became fatigued and tired of the task. In some places the ascent was so precipitous, and the short and intricate turnings so steep, that we had to get up them by clinging to the branches that stood in our way, and we not infrequently had recourse to our hands and knees; when this failed we had to be assisted by each other, dragging first the man, and then his load up, before we got to the summit. None but a voyageur or Indian can comprehend how men with heavy loads could accomplish such a task. And much greater would his surprise be if told that at certain seasons, when the snows are off the ground, loaded horses ascend and descend this route as far as Portage Point, and that few accidents ever occur.”